“Modern nightlife was invented in London around 1700,” says Dan Hitchens in The Spectator. Before then, festivities were held by daylight and the night was a “fearful, all-consuming” endurance test, to be got through ideally without “falling off a bridge or being stabbed”. But by the end of the 17th century, aristocrats had decided they “preferred to party after dark”. The trend was rapidly commercialised: a new kind of conspicuous consumer descended on pleasure gardens like Vauxhall and Ranelagh (in Chelsea), to “eat, drink, stroll and listen to music by the many-coloured light of thousands of oil lamps”. By the 1780s, foreign visitors reported admiringly that “Oxford Street’s shops kept the lights blazing until 10pm”.
It became a mark of status to stay up long into the night, and soon people were vying to be “fashionably late”. “The present folly is late hours,” wrote Horace Walpole in 1777. “Everybody tries to be particular by being too late, and as everybody tries it, nobody is so. It is now the fashion to go to Ranelagh two hours after it is ‘over’.” One of the most joyful scenes in Boswell’s Life of Johnson is the great lexicographer being woken at 3am by men banging on his door. He opens it “warily, poker in hand”, only to discover two young friends who have been out roistering. “You dogs,” says Johnson, with a wry grin. “I’ll have a frisk with you.” And they sally forth to Covent Garden. For Johnson, that icon of Georgian London, sleep was the enemy. “Whoever thinks of going to bed before 12 o’clock,” he declared, “is a scoundrel.”